On June 22, I was invited to participate on National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show along with Dr. Richard Davidson, NCCAM grantee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Mr. Jonathon Foust, founder of the Mindfulness Training Institute in Washington, D.C. The topic was “The Power of Meditation.”
Meditation can take a variety of forms: mantra meditation, relaxation response, mindfulness meditation, Transcendental Meditation, and Zen Buddhist meditation, among others. Yoga and Tai chi also incorporate meditative components. Meditation practices are often rooted in spiritual practices, but many people practice meditation outside of a religious context. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey revealed that some 20 million U.S. adults use meditation for health purposes.
Meditation has been used for centuries to increase calmness and physical relaxation, improve psychological balance, cope with illness, and enhance overall health and well-being. The literature on meditation suggests that it is a very powerful tool for learning control of attention, regulating emotion, and increasing self-awareness or cultivation of the state called mindfulness. These insights are old. But what is new in the last 15 years or so is scientific data. These data show that during meditation there are a number of measurable biological changes—for example, in the autonomic nervous system—and the recognition that meditation has the potential to impact on mental and physical health. This is an area of scientific promise in mind-body medicine that NCCAM is supporting and welcoming continued exploration by our grantees.
There are many interesting challenges related to bringing science to the study of meditation. Modern neuroscience has increased the tools available for this research. It is now well established that the meditative state can be associated with changes in electrical function of the brain, and recent imaging studies suggest that there may actually be neuroanatomic changes as well. In particular, Dr. Davidson’s work on the effect of meditation on processing of attention and neuroplasticity is fascinating, as is his examination of meditation on immune and brain function. Challenges to this area of research include understanding how to set up adequate control and understanding the factors that determine how people actually incorporate the practice of meditation into their daily lives. These are study design challenges that need to be met so we may further explore the potential health benefits of this intriguing ancient human practice.